I had a concept in mind that had been nagging away at me for months, demanding to be crafted into a story. Two concepts, in fact, one about a cat and one about two dogs. Both seemed ideal for inclusion in my short fiction collection, Prickle Moon.
I made numerous attempts to write these stories, trying many different approaches to style and structure. That was unusual for me – I generally have a good intuitive feel for what will work. The problem in this instance lay with the voice.
Each of the stories had an animal as the main protagonist, the character whose journey the piece was built around. The obvious way to write the story was to give the animal the point of view. The easier, less effective way would be to write in detached, omniscient third person. I knew that would lessen the impact of the story.
The trouble is, animals don’t think in human words. Dogs respond to a certain number of familiar words and phrases, such as their name and various commands. They are sensitive to tone of voice and body language. But their thought patterns are not those of a human being, and I suspect the workings of a cat’s mind are even more alien. We often interpret the behaviour of our domestic pets through the filter of our human perception, but we can’t really know what is going on inside that feline or canine mind.
Here’s an excerpt from my most recent draft of the dog story. Muffin, a terrier, has sensed that his owner is about to go away. Pooty is a recently adopted, smaller dog. Yes, she does have a silly name – it came with her from the shelter.
His dinner is late. Pack Leader rushes about doing things. Muffin feels hollow inside, hollow and jangly and wrong.
Pooty runs around the house. She has a nap. She plays with her squeaky toy until Pack Leader yells at her. Pooty cringes. Pack Leader picks her up and cuddles her, making soothing noises. Muffin watches.
Finally, dinner comes. Muffin has a mouthful, but it just doesn’t taste right. He goes under the table. Pooty empties her bowl and licks it clean. She glances at Muffin, then sidles towards his leftovers. Muffin barks, and she retreats.
Pack Leader crouches down and speaks to Muffin in her special voice. Muffin is not taken in. He lets her fondle his ears and scratch his belly. Her tone tells him she’s upset. ‘Calm and quiet, Muffin,’ she says. ‘Be nice to Pooty.’ Wretched Pooty! She changed everything. Muffin is not scared of big dogs – well, usually not – or thunderstorms. But when things change, when The Way Things Should Be is forgotten, his belly fills with terror. He feels it now, deep down, like an ant starting to crawl inside him, an ant that may soon become a monster.
Pack Leader opens the door and calls them outside. Muffin sulks, but Pack Leader throws the ball, and all else disappears. Run, run, run, snatch! Waaaaait – run, run, run, catch! He forgets the suitcase. Run, run, run, grab! He even forgets Pooty, who’s digging in a corner.
I soon got bogged down with this style. What should have been simple (What name does your dog use for you?) became ridiculously difficult – if I had another go at writing this I wouldn’t use Pack Leader, but I failed to think of anything better. I think the story reflects my understanding of canine behaviour, and the simplicity of Muffin’s thoughts works OK. But I was always aware of how inappropriate human language is to convey animal thoughts and feelings. The story became easier to write once Muffin and Pooty were alone in the kennels and not interacting much with humans.
Knowing there were many successful stories out there with animal protagonists, I looked at a sample to see how the writers approached the problem, starting with a couple of classics. [Read more…]